[October 3, 1863]
By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coals as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferer in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
A woodcut depicting soldiers celebrating Thanksgiving during the Civil War.
Today’s primary source is often pointed to as the origin of America’s Thanksgiving Day holiday. However, the tradition goes back farther. A holiday day of thanksgiving had become traditional in the North prior to the Civil War with each state or community setting aside its own day for family gatherings and feasting. In some areas, thanksgiving was more popular and more celebrated than Christmas which is why in many Union soldier letters such emphasis is placed on thanksgiving gatherings at home.
The editress of Godey’s Lady had been lobbying and writing for a national holiday of thanksgiving, and in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln made an important proclamation. About eighty years later, in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Thanksgiving Day an official American holiday and announced that it would always be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of each November.
Why did Lincoln issue the proclamation in October? To give time for the news to travel and preparations to be made.
Religion As A Weapon?
Lincoln puts forward the idea that national perverseness has caused the calamity of war, suggesting that this day of thanksgiving would be a way to honor God and regain favor.
Interestingly, both sides – Union and Confederate – used a religious works based system to try to gain God’s favor for their cause. Certainly, some individuals believed and used it more than others, but there was a general idea in the era that if God could be pleased, He would bestow favor and victory to that side.
Although the thanksgiving proclamation had far reaching impact on the national holiday calendar, it also had a religious undertone in the military conflict.
Among the things to grateful for in 1863, one stood out to me: Europe did not get involved in the war. We’ve talked about the possibility of other national intervention and the covert actions adopted by Britain, but overall Europe stayed out of the American conflict and by 1863 Lincoln saw that as a positive.
Also interesting to me, Lincoln consistently used the term “civil war” or “civil strife,” carefully continuing the implication that the Southern states were merely in rebellion and not recognizing them as another national entity. Apparently, words and phrasing matters.